“John Wayne only exists in Hollywood”: Narcos and Foreign Internal Defense


As winter temperatures have (belatedly) arrived here on the East Coast, the temptation to binge-watch multiple episodes of past or present shows has increased. The recent uptick in quality scripted programming, along with easy access to older shows, means that there are many excellent programs to choose from. But for those of us in the foreign policy and national security spaces, do we really want to spend our downtime watching programs relating to our professional lives? As I pointed out elsewhere, this can invoke George Costanza’s “worlds collide” theory.

For those that don’t mind mixing worlds, however, there can be some value in using film, television, and written fiction to “break a mental sweat” in thinking through matters relating to strategy and statecraft. As Joe Byerly so eloquently pointed out recently, fiction should have a place on professional development reading lists and it is often not included because there is an “organizational barrier that views fiction as entertainment.” Similarly, there is a temptation to dismiss television shows as entertainment not worthy for national security professional development. But this would be a mistake.

Fiction — whether on the page or on the screen — can push us to think about contemporary issues in a new light and broaden our strategic horizons. Fiction can also allow us to understand or become aware of different perspectives and to think about different strategic environments or problem sets ignored in other media. Furthermore, the entertainment aspect can be useful in holding one’s attention or allow one to break things up mentally. (Lastly, as War on the Rocks’ own Ryan Evans pointed out, treating such programs as Hell on Wheels as professional development can assuage guilt about devoting time to them.)

An excellent example of a television show serving as a vehicle for thinking about matters of national security can be found in the first season of Netflix’s original show Narcos. This program explores the rise of the cocaine trade in Colombia and the Medellín Cartel (with a special emphasis on Pablo Escobar). It shows the role of the Colombian government and its American partners in trying to deal with corruption, criminality, and escalating drug violence while also coping with Marxist guerrilla groups. It also highlights the escalating violence that the cocaine trade caused in the United States.

All of the major events in the show happened in real life, but because Narcos is a television program, some of the dialogue is invented, the timeline is compressed in places, and some of the characters are fictional amalgamations of real people (for instance there was never a U.S. ambassador named Noonan in Colombia) in order to work with the medium’s need to develop and track main characters. Some of these deviations will annoy certain audiences (e.g., cranky historians), but they shouldn’t be a problem for most viewers. And they also allow viewers to do additional reading into particular details. For this purpose, I highly recommend Mark Bowden’s excellent Killing Pablo — the first half of which roughly corresponds with season one of Narcos.

From an American perspective, one of the more interesting angles of the show is its focus on the efforts by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to assist, or try to assist, the Colombian government in fighting the drug war. This war was causing major political instability in the country through Escobar’s “plomo o plata” (silver or lead) strategy of bribes and intimidation in order to achieve his goal — to wit, establishing a sovereign narco-state. The DEA’s advise-and-assist role falls under the rubric of what U.S. military doctrine calls foreign internal defense (FID). Joint Publication 3-22 defines FID as

the participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization, to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to their security. The focus of US FID efforts is to support the host nation’s (HN’s) internal defense and development (IDAD), which can be described as the full range of measures taken by a nation to promote its growth and protect itself from the security threats described above. [emphasis added]

While this civilian angle to FID is fairly unique in and of itself, it is also interesting because, as I previously pointed out on this site, there is a dearth of attention in films or television to topics such as FID.

The show effectively demonstrates not only the challenges of working with the Colombians but also the difficulties in working with various elements of the Country Team that have different strategic interests. The CIA and military group (MILGROUP), for instance, are initially focused on threats posed by the Marxist guerrillas instead of the cartels. As the CIA station chief says at one point: “CIA would prefer not to get involved in local police matters.” Interagency cooperation only increases once linkages are shown between the Medellín Cartel, guerrillas in Colombia, and the governments of Nicaragua and Cuba, which served as cartel transshipment points.

As a former advisor in Iraq, I recognized many of the issues raised in work with the Colombian government. One issue was the importance of language competence. DEA Agent Steve Murphy struggles throughout the first season with his lack of solid Spanish language skills. A lack of language abilities (as I know far too well) causes an advisor to become very dependent upon translators or counterparts who speak English to carry out one’s duties. These filters make it difficult sometimes to know when one is being played by counterparts or other individuals. This also tacks in with many arguments that the military anthropologist Anna Simons has made about working in foreign cultures when the foreigners know us better than we know them.

The show’s handling of the difficulties in working with local allies also is useful. Advising duties often mark the advisor as an “other” both to fellow nationals (at least those responsible for your particular issue area) and also to one’s foreign counterparts and the local nationals encountered. There are many tensions at play in trying to be effective in one’s duties. One may, from time to time, need to selectively break the rules in order to advance efforts on the ground. The military transition team (MiTT) that I served on in Iraq, for instance, stayed located with our Iraqi battalion in order to maintain rapport and liaison after we were told to move to another location. One also needs to establish “red lines” with one’s counterparts about how they operate and how that will impact the cooperation and support provided. Returning to my Iraq experience, we were clear that abuse of prisoners would not be tolerated. While we were largely obeyed, we were fairly certain that other rules were being broken and we tended to look the other way. For example, the Iraqi battalion we worked with had “ghost soldiers” (soldiers that received pay but did not exist or were not serving), etc., but they were also effectively carrying out operations in their battlespace. One must choose battles wisely.

Narcos offers many examples of these dilemmas for Agents Murphy and Javier Peña in their interactions with the Colombian police, especially with the establishment of the “incorruptible” Search Bloc unit against the Medellín Cartel. The rise of the extrajudicial Los Pepes group that was fighting a “gloves off” parallel war — oftentimes with members of the Colombian police and military taking part — also causes tensions.

Escobar’s “plomo o plata” strategy was effective because the Medellín cartel at its height was making $22 billion a year in drug sales. The cartel was making so much money — due to demand for cocaine in the United States and elsewhere — that they were literally burying large quantities since they couldn’t legally save or spend it all. Those cops and politicians that could not be bought, whether they were in Colombia or elsewhere, were dealt with ruthlessly. Escobar and crew, for instance, were responsible for killing over 1,000 Colombian police officers. The show drives home the point that there will regularly be diverging strategic interests between U.S. policy and that of the host nation government. U.S. demands for things like the extradition of the drug lords caused more violence on the ground by encouraging the cartel to fight the government to repeal the extradition law. As Escobar tells his cousin Gustavo Gaviria, “This isn’t war. It’s negotiation.”

The most poignant scene on the subject of U.S. assistance to the Colombians comes when Agent Murphy meets with Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara (who was later killed by Escobar). The minister reminds Murphy that “We accept your help, but never your condescension. When all of this is over, Colombians will be the heroes, and the victims. John Wayne only exists in Hollywood.” This should be tattooed on the inner arm of any advisor in a FID environment.

Narcos also offers useful portrayals of the linkages between the Medellín cartel and the Marxist guerrillas as well as the strategic interactions between the Medellín and Cali cartels. On the linkages front, it is thought-provoking to show how both the guerrillas and cartel make opportune alliances of convenience when it suits their interests. The most interesting portrayal of this is when Escobar pays the M-19 group to assault the Colombian Palace of Justice. This assault achieved two objectives. First, it was great “propaganda of the deed” about the weakness of the Colombian government. Second, it destroyed 600,000 pages of evidence against Escobar at a crucial time. This nicely shows the problem of “crime–terror” overlaps.

Such overlaps can be very direct like the example above or more indirect. An example of an indirect crime–terror overlap comes from my experience in Iraq. We had a Yazidi interpreter named “Kevin” who worked with us. He was kidnapped one day while going home on leave. His captors gave him a choice: either pay them or he would be turned over to the al-Qaeda in Iraq emir in Mosul and be killed for working with us and for being Yazidi. His family wound up giving the kidnappers the money that he was saving to emigrate from Iraq. Indirect crime–terror overlaps are more likely in unstable environments, but especially in war zones, because some people will always try to use chaos and disorder in order to make a buck.

The Medellín–Cali interactions are interesting because they illustrate that there were multiple ways to thrive in the illicit narcotics business. Medellín used “plomo o plata” to the hilt while Cali is shown to operate more indirectly. Yes, they would use violence, but they were much more likely to use lawyers and public relations firms to protect their slice of the drug trade. Hopefully, as the show develops, it will focus on the costs and opportunities of dealing with mass violence while still allowing more indirect subversion to occur.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of watching Narcos is that it offers a warning against falling into the trap of what Samuel Huntington referred to as “strategic monism.” Strategic monism occurs when one falls prey to viewing a particular threat, capability, or geographic environment as the main driver of strategy. After 15 years (and counting) of war in Central and Southwest Asia, it is important to recognize that other security issues are problematic for U.S. national security policy. The drug cartels in Mexico offer problems similar to those shown in Colombia in Narcos, with escalating violence just across the border. As Dana Priest recently wrote about the situation in Mexico:

The cartels’ tactics resemble those most Americans would associate with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The display of multiple beheaded corpses and bodies hanging from bridges are a regular occurrence. Hundreds of young people have disappeared. Mass graves are commonplace.

I will be interested to see what the writers of Narcos will do with season two of the show. Of course, Escobar will eventually die. Will Agents Murphy and Pená remain as the main characters? Or will the introduction of American special operations forces (Centra Spike, Delta, DevGru) shift the show’s attention toward the dirty war side of American involvement? Hopefully they will remain as the main American characters because their performances are great and it is interesting to see a show where the non-military element of the show is in the lead. Regardless, I highly recommend this show to anyone who likes to mix some entertainment with their professional development.


Michael P. Noonan, PhD, is the director of research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and a contributor to War on the Rocks. An Army MiTT veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he is currently at work on a book project dealing with foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare.


Photo credit: Maj. Thomas Cieslak, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne)